On 1 January 2007, two and a half years after the unprecedented enlargement of 2004, Bulgaria and Romania became the newest members of the EU. However, unlike the other eight former Communist states which joined in 2004, Bulgarian and Romanian migrant workers have not granted open access to the United Kingdom’s labour market, contrary to the spirit of the EU's free market principles.
The United Kingdom was one of three countries, including Sweden and Ireland, not to place restrictions on the EU’s 2004 entrants. Expecting 15,000 migrant workers a year to walk through its open doors, the UK received a shock when over 600,000 migrant workers arrived in two years. This massive influx of migrants from Central and Eastern Europe prompted the Government to place restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals seeking work.
In October 2006, before Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, the British Government announced that immigrants from these countries would be afforded gradual access to the labour market and there was to be a quota for low-skilled migrant workers and an application process for highly skilled tradesmen and women.
The Worker Registration Scheme (WRS) was set in place in 2004 in order to allow workers from the A8 Countries to work in Britain. After registering with the WRS and within a month of finding employment, migrant workers from these countries are able to claim benefits such as Housing Benefit, Council Tax Benefit and Tax Credits. However, Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants are not entitled to register with the WRS, they still need work permits in order to work legally in Britain.
These restrictions were put in place to limit Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to students, the self-employed and the highly skilled, such as doctors, teachers or those with a skilled trade. Access for skilled workers is based on the requirements of permit arrangements and more importantly, the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP).
The quota, which allows 20,000 low-skilled migrant workers into the food and agricultural professions under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS), is another attempt to limit immigration from these eastern European countries.
In May 2007, the Home Office revealed that more than 120 Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants were arriving in Britain every day and more recently, Home Office Minister Liam Byrne said that the decision, made in October 2007, to keep the restrictions in place was intended to keep a "prudent balance" between the needs of the economy and the impact on public services.
It is possible that the restrictions will remain in place until 2014 as the European Union’s regulations stipulate that the curbing of migrant workers can be maintained for up to seven years after a country joins the EU.
The Home Office has stated that the restrictions, although reviewed annually, will remain firmly in place until at least the end of 2008.
Yet, there is some disagreement in the Government over the decision to place restrictions on migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania. Greg Hands, MP for Hammersmith and Fulham, called for the limits to be abandoned.
His position is that the regulations, which affect a relatively small number of people, are easy to bypass. This results, he maintains, in unfair discrimination, treating the migrants as "second class citizens" and encourage people to work illegally.
He said: "I strongly favour there being equal access to all citizens of European Union countries to the UK labour market.
"I am not approaching this debate with a general belief that the UK should loosen its immigration controls – but I strongly believe the restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians are wrong, counter-productive, expensive and chaotically administered."
However, in fearing a repeat of the influx after 2004, the British Government chose to be cautious and for the foreseeable future immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria who wish to work in Britain will have to meet a tough set of restrictions.
A young Bulgarian immigrant Tsvetana Jovtcheva, was one the many Bulgarians and Romanians who camped out in London’s Hyde Park in April 2007.
She said: "I do not want to go home yet. I can earn good money in this country – much better than at home. But it is much more difficult than I thought it would be. My government should warn us how difficult it is to come here and find work."
Tsvetana’s opinions are not unique and although Romanians and Bulgarians can travel freely to UK after joining the European Union in January, finding work is a different matter.